‘The Promise’ on Channel 4

Published: 1 November 2011
Briefing Number 302

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Summary: In February 2011 British television station Channel 4 broadcast four- part drama series The Promise, by acclaimed writer Peter Kosminsky, about the founding of Israel, and Israel and the Palestinians today.  The storyline itself is fictional, but the story is set in 1945-8 and in modern-day Israel, and depicts real, historic and highly charged events.  The story unfolds through the eyes of British army officer Len, who is stationed in Palestine in 1946 and experiences a growing disillusion and eventual hatred for the Jews in the run-up to Israel’s independence.  Len’s experiences are juxtaposed against those of his grand-daughter Erin who visits modern-day Israel to discover more about her father’s wartime experiences, and finds herself caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     

We on Beyond Images published a series of commentaries on each episode of The Promise after they were broadcast, and we reproduce these commentaries below.  Our conclusion is that under the guise of historical ‘balance’ The Promise was in fact a stunningly one-sided portrayal of Israel past and present, and marks a milestone in the cultural demonisation of Israel in the UK.  In this compiled Briefing we explain why. 

A serious historic falsehood at the heart of The Promise

Comments on Episode 1, broadcast: 6 February 2011

A commentary on The Promise Episode 1

British TV channel Channel 4 has been broadcasting 'The Promise'.  And it is a landmark piece of television.

'The Promise' is a four-part, six-hour dramatisation of the founding of Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.   We have been watching it.  And it is gripping. We are not surprised that it has been receiving very good reviews, and is a likely candidate for future broadcasting awards. 

Over 1.5 million viewers in the UK have been watching to date, including - we assume - most people with an active interest in the conflict: politicians, academics, students, members of human rights groups, writers and intellectuals, diplomats and civil servants.  The production is superb.  The acting is excellent.  It is meticulously observed and staged.....

And it is also built on a major historical falsehood.  A falsehood so severe that it undermines the credibility of its messages. 

Its director Peter Kosminsky claims that he "told both sides of the story". But episode 1 reveals that he does not even know what the Israeli side of the story is......

A warped history of how the conflict began 

'The Promise' describes the events of 1945-8 through the eyes of Len, a British sergeant who had witnessed the liberation of the Jews at Bergen-Belsen, and is later posted with British forces to Palestine. 

At a crucial moment in that first episode Len, together with other British army officers, receives a briefing from their British army commander on the purpose of their mission in Palestine, and the history behind it.  This takes place shortly after the second world war.

The commander's words are not intended as a partisan speech.  It is the moment at which the British soldiers (and by extension 1.5 million viewers) are provided with the background to the conflict, and indeed the subsequent episodes of 'The Promise'.  Indeed it is the only piece of the script which endeavours to tell the story of how the Jews, the Arabs and the British found themselves in three-way conflict.

Here is what the British commanding officer in Palestine says:

"The Jews and Arabs have been living here in relative harmony for years.  But our victory over the Germans has turned the trickle of Jews coming to this land into a flood.  You must understand, the Jews see it as their holy land.  But the Arabs, who have been here for over a thousand years, see them as stealing their land.  Our job is to keep the two sides apart....."

There you have it.  The historical narrative of Israel.  And it is a narrative which does not operate to resolve the conflict, but to perpetuate it. 

Ever since World War Two, the Arabs have seen the Jewish national enterprise as the consequence of Nazism. Without indigenous roots.  And without historical legitimacy. 

They build their sense of victimhood on the argument that they are "paying the price" for European fascism.  Far from challenging this mindset, Kosminsky's so-called 'balanced' narrative has reinforced it.
Kosminsky makes no mention of the steady return to Palestine of Jews which had been carrying on since the 1880s.  Kosminsky does not hint at the Balfour Declaration or other international commitments to support a Jewish national home. Kosminsky does not recognise that Jewish national life had existed thousands of years ago in the land of Israel, and that the connection is a national connection.

Kosminsky does not pay any attention to the Jews' state-building efforts in the period before the Second World War. And Kosminsky perpetuates a complete falsehood that the Jews and Arabs had been living in "relative harmony". 

Kosminsky reportedly researched The Promise for over a decade.  But has he heard of the Arab riots against the Jews of the Yishuv in the 1920s or 1930s? Has he heard of the incessant violent assaults upon Jews building up Palestine? Has he heard of the Hebron massacre of 1929? 

The misleading claim of “relative harmony”

The idea that there was "relative harmony" in Palestine till World War Two is a fiction. It's a fiction which Hamas and other rejectionists and ideologues readily embrace.
Meanwhile, the claim that the Arabs had been living there for a thousand years is also a massive over-simplification.  Even the most partisan historians have to admit that Palestine under the Ottomans and then the British was not exactly a hub of Arab nationalism, or a focal point of Arab pride and economic endeavour.   

While 'The Promise' is compelling and highly watchable drama, there are plenty of other major flaws in its 'balanced' narrative and in its framing of the conflict. In subsequent weeks we will be explaining them. 
And by the way, here are two other examples of the damage which is caused when the narrative of Israel’s history is artificially started at World War II. Barack Obama made this error in his major speech to the Arab world in June 2009: see:

'How President Obama got it wrong on Israel's history... and why it matters for future peace' (Beyond Images Briefing 242)

And The Economist made this error in an obituary of Yasser Arafat published in 2004: see    
The Economist Magazine's obituaries: misleading accounts of Israel's history' (Beyond Images Briefing 124)

Key messages:

- Delegitimisation of Israel is not just a matter of outrageous, flagrant denial of Jewish national rights. 

- It is happening in drip-drip style, as ideas which call the history of Israel into question are steadily absorbed into liberal discourse, into respectable mainstream thinking.  Click here for The Beyond Images Report on Delegitimisation which provides many examples of this.   

- Elements of Channel 4's 'The Promise' are a classic instance of this phenomenon. The Promise is doubtless being viewed by almost everyone in the UK who passionately believes in the Palestinian cause. 

- In building its drama on the basis of an explicit historical fiction, it is not contributing to peace and understanding.  It is fuelling the falsehoods on which the delegitimisation of Israel thrives.  There are many other falsehoods. No amount of fine acting and strong direction can obscure that fact.   

- By the way, we have not seen a single syllable uttered about The Promise in public by any of the central Jewish organisations which claim to be fighting delegitimisation in the UK, in the two weeks since its broadcasts began.....  Are we on Beyond Images missing something.... or - just possibly - are they?       

Jews as ruthless killers, Arabs as trustworthy…..

Episodes 2 and 3 of The Promise, broadcast on 13 and 20 February 2011

"I don't know what's happened to you people" screams British soldier Len at the father of his Jewish lover Clara, as he suspects her of betrayal during the tense days of 1947 in Mandatory Palestine.

Writer and director of The Promise, Peter Kosminsky has an answer to Len. In Kosminsky's eyes the Jews became callous, ruthless killers.

That is the only way to describe the portrayal of the Jews in Mandatory Palestine in Episodes 2 and 3 of the TV serial the Promise, being broadcast at peak time on British TV's Channel 4.

Brutalised by the Nazi Holocaust, the Jews justified horrendous killing to ensure it could "never happen again".

The most extreme acts during the 1945-1947 period are portrayed as the actions of the entire Yishuv, accompanied by incessant Irgun radio braodcasts accusing the British of being Nazis.  There is no moderating voice.  There is no internal debate among the Jews.  There are no diplomatic voices. There are no voices of reason.  Only Jewish hatred of the British.  And murder.

The blowing up of the King David Hotel - without question a tragedy and a lowpoint - happens without context, without reference to the warnings which were given in advance by the perpetrators.  As a young woman is pulled from the rubble, to the accompaniment of mournful Jewish music, and she dies on the stretcher in the arms of the rescuing British soldiers, it is impossible to feel anything but hatred for the Jews who perpetrated this.

Jews casually sip coffee while watching the murder of British soldiers
At the end of episode two, still in 1946, three British soldiers are shot at point blank range in a street ambush.  One has his brains blown out, in a close-up shot. The Jewish killers stroll back to a cafe across the road, and take their seats again.  And what do the Jewish onlookers do, as the British soldiers lie sprawling in pools of blood?  The Jews continue sipping coffee under their parasols.  Just a brief glimpse.  But it is enough to get the message across....
At the beginning of Episode 3, the Irgun try to free a condemned and injured Jewish comrade who is in a British military hospital.  When a nurse objects to them entering the ward, one of them blasts her to death with a shot at point blank range through the chest.

The hanging of the British sergeants is accompanied by more propaganda against the British.  And when the Jewish killers booby-trap one of the soldiers' bodies, blowing up a British sapper who has just checked it in full view of his British commanders, the viewer does not feel outrage - only predictability.  

When British soldiers search a kibbutz for weapons, they interrupt a classroom lesson.  The innocent-sounding Jewish teacher objects to the interruption, but they continue the search.  And sure enough, the classroom contains a massive, concealed weapons stash, under the floor.  The Jewish teacher is a liar, the Jewish children pawns in the hands of ruthless Jewish killers.

A Jewish veteran justifies murder

These events are defended 60 years later when British teenager Erin meets a veteran leader of the Irgun, who had been involved in the King David bombing.  Sitting in the comfort of his Israeli home - a home with (needless to say) a luxury swimming pool and reinforced steel front doors - the elderly Jew recounts the horrors of the concentration camps and passionately justifies what happened next:

"We were determined never to capitulate in the face of genocide.  If the British stood in our way, we would wipe them out...."

Kosminsky ensures that this speech is delivered in a tone of self-righteousness.  Having portrayed horrible killing by Jews, he then has a veteran Jew justify it.

The Arabs of 1947 – gracious, humane, trustworthy

And what about the Arabs in 1946-7?  The contrast with the Jews could not be greater.  During episode 2, the family of Bassam abu Muhammed, the Arab whom Len befriends, are portrayed as gracious, trustworthy, humane and hospitable.  They speak with quiet dignity, charm and respect. They treat Len with honour, sincerity and warmth. 

And when they complain with dignity and bitterness to Len that the British have let the Jews "come from Europe and steal the land", it is not only their view: it is clearly the view which Kosminsky himself wishes to present to viewers.  Nothing in this episode or any other challenges the notion that a huge injustice has been done to the Palestinians by the very creation of Israel. 

During Episodes 2 and 3, there is – incredibly - not a single portrayal of an Arab act of violence. Not a single call to violence.  Neither in 1947 nor in 2005, when the modern Israeli events are set. 

The violence, the fanaticism, the ruthlessness, the dehumanising of the enemy, are the exclusive preserve of the Jews.
The Promise is brilliantly staged, excellently acted and compelling viewing.  And the emotional conflict facing Len are superbly constructed.  

But The Promise is also a historic travesty. And its narrative of the founding of Israel is utterly twisted. 

We will say more about the programme (including its portrayal of modern-day Israelis and Palestinians) in future weeks.   

We received many supportive messages in response to our comments about The Promise last week.  We would welcome your comments on what we have said above.

A cultural milestone in the demonisation of Israel
The final episode of The Promise, broadcast on 27 February 2011 

 UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 has completed its four part series The Promise.  And it has emerged as a cultural milestone in the demonisation of Israel.

What is demonisation?  We on Beyond Images defined it many years ago as the portrayal of Israel as persistently cruel and inhumane with few redeeming features, and as a source of instability in the world.  (See Beyond Images Briefing 64 - Demonisation of Israel).

The Promise provides that portrayal.

At the conclusion of the final episode, imprisoned British soldier Len, reflecting on the events of 1945-1948, writes in his diary:

"After Bergen Belsen, I thought that the Jews deserved a state, but now I'm not so sure.... Their precious state has been born in violence and cruelty to its neighbours, and I'm not sure I want it to prosper...."

Viewers watching the grotesque historical distortions of the final episode would understand where Len is coming from.

The Jews as murderers, with no voices of reason or compromise

The Jews are portrayed as utterly ruthless mass murderers in 1948, with no voices of reason, no voices of compromise. They are cynical, manipulative and bloodthirsty.

Len's lover Clara betrays him and takes part enthusiastically in mass killings graphically portrayed at Deir Yassin.

The gentle Arab boy whom Len befriends is shot by a faceless Jewish sniper while trying to flee, and dies in Len's arms, blood spurting from his mouth.

During this entire fourth episode, there is not a single reference to the existence of an Arab war against the Jews, or the violent rejection by its Arab neighbours of Jewish statehood.  The Jews are portrayed as carrying out unprovoked slaughter; with no qualms, and no questions.

That is demonisation.

What about The Promise and current events in Israel?

The depiction of current events in Israel is just as bad.

Modern Israel and Israelis are described primarily through the eyes of Paul, the radical Israeli son of Caesarea millionaire parents. Paul's speeches provide the central thesis of The Promise on modern-day Israel:
Israel is a "military dictatorship" where "the military" screw up our children (Episode 1)

The checkpoints and security fence have "absolutely no security purpose whatsoever but are just there to drive the Palestinians out of their land" (Episode 1)

The Palestinian suicide bombers are left with "no choice" but to launch these attacks as the Palestinians "have no other way to make their voices heard" (Episode 2)

The Jews of Hebron can shoot Arab children as they wish, and behave as "disgustingly" as they like, and the Israeli army sit by and “do nothing” (Episode 4)

Paul - charming, sensitive, handsome, earnest - continues in this vein throughout the series.

18 year old British visitor Erin listens intently to this, and takes this all in, wide-eyed and silent.  She raises no challenge.

The only voices in the drama to challenge any of these views - and not all of them by any means - are Paul's parents. But through the carefully scripted dialogue, his mother is portrayed as a bigot, in whose eyes the Palestinians are "animals". And while his father does believe in a “just peace”, his views are discredited by his son in the first episode as liberal "legitimisation of the occupation", nothing more.

At a crucial moment, Palestinian Arab Omar finds himself having dinner with Paul's parents in their spectacularly luxurious Caesaria villa. This is the only Israeli home we see on the inside in 6 hours of TV - Omar, needless to say, manages to sneak a swim in the massive pool.  Omar asks Paul's parents where they come from. The answers: "Manchester", says Paul's father; "originally Hungary", says Paul's mother.

Say no more: Jewish immigrants doing this to us?

Injustice in 1948, injustice in 2005 - in the simplified view of The Promise, Israel's history is one long saga of ethnic cleansing, cruelty and explusion, all justified by the Holocaust.

Dehumanising the Jews of Hebron: spitting, unprovoked fanatics

Hebron today is tense and uneasy.  There have been crimes by Jews - globally reported; but there have been many appalling crimes - never remembered by anyone - by Arabs against Jews in modern-day Hebron (click here for Beyond Images Briefing 8 - No Sanctuaries: Palestinian attacks on the Jewish religious heritage).

In the Promise', the wrongdoing in Hebron is all in one direction.

In Hebron today, little Jewish boys wearing skullcaps are depicted throwing rocks, totally unprovoked, at a group of sweet and beautiful Palestinian schoolgirls.

Religious Jewish women, totally unprovoked, spit frenzied abuse at defenceless and calm Palestinian women.

Israeli soldiers look on casually, indifferently, as this happens.

And when Erin is escorted through the central Hebron home of some monstrously unpleasant Jews, she catches sight of a group of Jewish men in prayer shawls, in fervent prayer. And her reaction to all of this: once again, wide-eyed and silent.

In Gaza, Erin's friend Eliza - now in a front line unit of the Army - takes part in a military operation to demolish the Palestinian Arab home of a female, teenage suicide bomber in which Erin is taking shelter.  Eliza's conduct is yet another Jewish betrayal of friendship and of trust.

Israel using Palestinian children as human shields…

And a few moments later Israeli soldiers march Erin and her new-found and extremely innocent Palestinian child friend through the Gaza streets using them in broad daylight as human shields, and then searching a Palestinian home with them as hostages in front of the heavily-armed troops.

The fact that house demolitions stopped years ago (following extensive internal Israeli criticism and debate), the fact that these accusations of Israeli use of human shields have been fiercely denied by the IDF; the fact that it was Hamas which used Palestinians as human shields during Cast Lead - all of these uncomfortable facts feature nowhere in The Promise.

Such facts would interfere with the narrative.

A relentless narrative of hatred

Throughout The Promise, the Israeli Army is portrayed as brutal, callous, law-breakers. Israeli soldiers who express a desire to treat Palestinians humanely are taunted by fellow Israeli soldiers as "pinko lefties" (Eliza's expression from Episode 2).

There are no shades of grey in The Promise. Israeli extremism is magnified and portrayed as normative. Arab extremism is ignored completely. Allegations of inhumanity against Israel today are invariably taken as true. Inconvenient truths about the Palestinian Arabs today are simply whitewashed.
The Promise is a relentless narrative of hatred against the Jews from the founding of Israel to Israel today. It will fuel boycott campaigns, calls for a one-state solution, and excuses for suicide bombing.

It will also be nominated for BAFTA awards for artistic accomplishment.  Welcome to liberal Britain today.

[As we predicted in February 2011, The Promise was nominated for a BAFTA award.  While it did not win, it was shortlisted for the drama of the year award – Beyond Images]

In our view, any UK Israel advocacy group which remains publicly silent on The Promise cannot credibly claim to be entitled to speak on Israel on other matters. The approach of at least one major group we are familiar with, which systematically declines to publicly engage or rebut falsehoods and untruths about Israel - is simply a surrender in the face of this demonization of the country.

The Promise will have been watched by policy-makers, politicians, student activists, writers, academics, ethnic minority groups, and most British citizens with an active interest in the conflict. It must be exposed and discredited before it does yet more harm. And that is the responsibility of us all.

Postscript: a half-hearted response to the programme by ‘pro-Israel’ groups in the UK

The pro-Israel community in the UK, and its self-proclaimed leaders, undertook some half-hearted and ineffective steps to respond to the broadcasting of the Promise.  The Board of Deputies wrote a letter of protest to Channel 4, but senior management at the broadcaster utterly rejected all criticism.  Meanwhile, 43 complaints about the Promise were submitted to media regulator OFCOM: all 43 were rejected. We are not aware of any concrete steps taken since. The Promise has entered into the cultural memory of the country, and pro-Israel constituencies in the UK have simply let this happen.  It is not easy to undo the harm caused by such a programme, but there are ways to call its credibility effectively into question.  Such ways have not been chosen.